In reading an article in Lucifer the other day, I was struck by a quotation from Elihu Burritt which ran in part thus: "There is no sequestered spot in the universe, no dark niche along the disk of non-existence, from which man can retreat from his relations to others, where he can withdraw the influence of his existence upon the moral destiny of the world; everywhere his presence or absence will be felt, everywhere he will have companions who will be better or worse for his influence. Thousands of my fellow-beings will yearly enter eternity, with characters differing from those they would have carried thither had I never lived."
The thought ran parallel with the remarks of our President last Tuesday upon the multiplied force of concerted action, in showing that, side by side with what we are doing, runs the hidden current of our being, slow-moving, perhaps, but nevertheless sweeping on with a resistless force, none the less great for being unsuspected. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to realize, — this force of passive existence, if I may use the expression. To speak, to act, — we can all appreciate as bearing largely upon the character of others; we can all realize the inspiration of a great deed, a noble sentence, but simply to be, — what can that do for the world? How far can the nature of a man, apart from words and actions, affect the great purpose of the Teachers, how much can being help to form the nucleus of Universal Brotherhood? It is the first impulse always to ask What shall I do to be saved, and yet what is right action but the fruit of right thought, as that is the blossom of the character from which it depends, as the flower hangs from the tree. The gardener does not try to improve his roses by pulling open the buds and trying to stretch the crumpled leaves to a broader growth, but he turns his attention to the bush on which they grow, grafts it, waters it, enriches the soil around it, exposes it to the light and air, and the more perfect flowers follow as a natural sequence. And as we cannot think of the perfect rose without its fragrance, so the perfect character cannot be thought of without its influence, that perfume of the soul which is as subtle and as powerful as thought itself.
For, after all, what is this influence of which we speak but the aggregate of the man's thoughts and deeds, the real personality which all his tricks of speech and graces of action cannot hide? This is why we are constantly taught that thought is better than action; it is so (as one of the sages has told us) because a man becomes that on which he resolutely and persistently thinks. He puts himself into an attitude of receptivity to a particular influence, and, as the law of force is the same on all planes, that force follows the line of the least resistance, and enters the channel he has prepared for it. We receive those influences that we consciously or unconsciously seek; we give out those influences which are the result of what we have sought. It is useless to forego indulgence in pleasure or in sin while the desire for that pleasure or that sin is still strong in our hearts, because in that case it is but the outside of the sepulchre that is whitened. Kill out the desire for the sin, purify the heart itself, and the body of that sin dies, and its sepulchre, like the fabled tomb of the Virgin, is found full of fragrant roses.
In Longfellow's beautiful poem of Santa Filomena he says:
"Whene'er a noble deed is wrought,
Whene'er is spoken a noble thought,
Our hearts, in glad surprise,
To higher levels rise.
The tidal wave of deeper souls
Into our inmost being rolls,
And lifts us unawares
Out of all meaner cares.
This is the active influence, the power we are all ready to recognize, all eager to work for. But there is also the passive influence, the "atmosphere" of a person, of which we are all more or less conscious, and which, being a continuous thing and ever abiding with that person, has an even more powerful though less apparent effect. To influence others by the voluntary force of speech or action is comparatively easy, for it is a momentary effort; we poise ourselves for an instant on the topmost heights of our being, and our fellow-men, kindled at the sight, strive, for another moment, to emulate our altitude. But how much harder the task so to inform our inmost souls that they can give out nothing but nobility, nothing but love! It was said of Lady Elizabeth Hastings that to love her was a liberal education, and we have all known men and women whose presence was a benediction, and made the brightest vision of Universal Brotherhood seem a thing to be realized tomorrow. So true it is that, as Burke once said, "Virtue as well as vice can be caught by contact."
For it is precisely by this influence, this tremendous power which we all possess and which we handle as carelessly as children do gunpowder, that that nucleus of Universal Brotherhood is to be formed which, in the language of Walt Whitman, is "to saturate time and eras." We are all occasionally startled by being confronted with some word or deed of our own that we had entirely forgotten, but that, like a chance-sown seed, has borne fruit in some other mind, and now we are told to gaze upon the harvest. It is these occasional glimpses of the far-reaching influences we wield that startle our reluctant souls out of their lethargy, and bring them face to face with the unalterable realities of their past, the glorious possibilities of their future. This again is the active influence of the spoken word: but who confronts us with the results of that other influence that never ceases, that weight of character, that force of personality that is continually creating for the soul "the garment that we know it by"? "The words that a father speaks to his children in the privacy of home," says Emerson, "are not heard by the world, but, as in whispering galleries, they are clearly heard at the end, and by posterity."
But how much more power over the destinies of our fellowmen has the perpetual influence of our nature than the strongest of our spoken words! That which we say for good in the course of our lives is very little, that which we do still less, but that which we are affects every human being with whom we come in contact as we move about the world, and draws within our sphere all the highest forces of the universe to co-operate with us.
This is not a good to be gained by one effort, not a victory to be decided by one battle. It is a long, slow building-up of character, thought by thought, as the coral-insect builds the reef grain by grain. And the work must be done with the good of others as our steadfast aim, with the idea of Universal Brotherhood ever before us as we toil. There is no need that we should sigh for wider fields of action while we wield such possibilities for good or evil as this power breathing from us unawares; but he who works for such a purpose, for the purification of his own soul that others may be benefited, will see ever farther and farther into the heavens. And the task of self-purification will bring with it that beautiful transparency of spirit that enables all men to see and bless the light that shineth from within and enlighteneth all the world.
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